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Pickpocket's World War II booty found in Utah club's wall

OGDEN, Utah — During the early 1940s a pickpocket working in the Pioneer Tavern on Ogden’s busy 25th Street lifted an envelope of papers from a woman and a wallet from a soldier.

It was easy. The bar would have been busy and crowded with wartime soldiers, who mobbed Ogden during the war, and on Ogden’s Two-Bit Street such crime was common. The thief went straight to the men’s room to check his take, removed any money and got rid of the evidence by stuffing the envelope and wallet into a handy crack in the wall.

And there they sat.

The Pioneer is now the Kokomo Club. Earlier this year, owner Cindy Simone decided it was time to replace the ancient fixtures in the men’s room, so she tore out the wall to get at the plumbing.

In the wall she found two very old whiskey bottles, a wine bottle, and what she quickly realized were time capsules of two lives.

“I need to get these back to those people,” or their relatives, she said, and started making phone calls from what evidence she could glean from the scraps of paper she’d found.

This week she succeeded, in part.

The wallet is still a mystery, but on Monday she sat in a booth of the tavern and showed Darrell Rector, of Washington Terrace, the envelope of documents and pictures from his grandmother, Lillian Rector, who died in 1963.

Its contents were a slice of her life, and life in America, during World War II. There was a military insurance certificate for Darrell’s uncle and pictures of some of his relatives, including one of his father that Darrell had never seen. There were his grandmother’s Food Stamps ID card, and her Social Security card, issued June 19, 1937, just two years after Social Security became law.

“He sat in that booth pulling that stuff out, and he was getting teary,” Simone said. “I said, ‘What are you feeling right now?’ and he said ‘I’m just feeling something that I hadn’t felt for in years. I feel so close to my grandmother right now. I really needed this.’ ”

“Then he said, ‘What can I do to repay you, and I said, ‘Give me a hug.’ ”

Rector said his grandmother had a rough life. His grandparents lived in North Dakota. During the Great Depression, “my grandfather took off, he just hit the road.” His grandmother had to farm the kids out to friends to make sure they stayed fed.

She needed help eating. The Food Stamp card, issued in Milnor, N.D., is dated Dec. 26, 1940.

Things improved during World War II when the family moved to Ogden. She got a job packing parachutes at Hill Air Force Base. She lived in the Ben Lomond Hotel, at the east end of Two-Bit Street, and while Rector said he never knew his grandmother to drink, he admitted it was not impossible.

“If she wanted to go drink, that was her business,” he said.

The Army insurance form was issued to his uncle Leo, he said, who served in the U.S. Army during the war and fought on Guadalcanal. It was issued July 10, 1941, and would have paid off $2,000 if he’d been killed.

“They’re for $250,000 now,” Rector said.

Simone had no idea the people she was looking for lived 5 miles away.

“I started in North Dakota, looking for Rectors,” and she found one family that had a niece they thought might know.

“Two days later I got a call from a gentleman in Minnesota who did genealogy, and he hooked me up with him,” she said, nodding her head at Darrell Rector.

So, success with the envelope, but what of the wallet?

It is being a problem.

It has a lot of stuff in it, with a lot of information, but Simone has run into dead ends everywhere she’s looked.

The wallet belonged to a soldier, Private Manuel Meza Cano, who gives his home address only as “general delivery, San Jose, California.”

The wallet contained a document showing that in 1943, he worked in the medical department at Bushnell Medical Hospital in Brigham City, now the former Intermountain Inter-Tribal School.

There’s his draft card, also from San Jose, and a card showing he paid $1 for an annual membership in the Red Cross.

“He was very Catholic,” Simone said, because the wallet also contained numerous religious cards, a small stone heart and a gold wedding ring. The thief missed a good bet there because the ring is 14 karat gold, but was hidden in a pocket.

Simone said she called the San Jose courthouse and came up empty.

“They have no record of his living, of his being married, owning property or being buried,” she said. “They said I should send the stuff to the police, but I don’t want it just sitting on some shelf.”

So she’ll hang onto it and keep trying. She’s going to check military sources next in the Veterans Administration, or the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs. If any local veterans have any ideas, she wants to talk to them.

It’s like with Lillian’s things, she said. “She needed me to do something with this stuff,” and she feels Cano does too.
 

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